THE HAMSTER FUNERAL
Daddy was a poet trapped in a county court judge’s body.
I will always think of him as Daddy, though I suppose if I knew him as I got older I would have transitioned to calling him Dad, and maybe Benjamin when older still and a teenager who wanted to be sassy.
When he died, he had a hamster funeral, or at least that’s how I thought of it. Memories from preschool boyhood are always scarce and blotchy, and it seems only the outliers survive and become filled in over decades with convincing-enough details, but that part stuck with me. Even though the death and its precipitating circumstances were still protectively surreal at the time of his service, the modest element of that day kept me tethered to a broad sadness, as if the sadness was an infinite, invisible horizontal plane and anywhere you stepped you could not help but put your leg through it. I mean, after all, I had seen a real funeral, and this, this was no more than a hamster would get, even though my aunt tried to fancy-it-up by bringing a vase of Safeway flowers to set on a round, bold plaid tablecloth. I knew that underneath the cloth was a folding patio table, not even a nice wooden one, but a plastic one with a slightly warped top that my daddy had foraged from the free-cycle area of the local dump.
This was a step up from the nothing service that was planned because—the grownups said—Benjamin would not have wanted any money spent on him. Or any attention. Or anyone faking to be friends when he had no friends. We instead drove to a lookout point over the flatirons and parked next to my aunt’s minivan at the pullout from the highway that Daddy traveled the first Saturday of every month to the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Boulder.
This was prairie between the sprawling Denver suburbs and the downhill approach to Boulder, like a gap from a missing tooth, except the gap was the prettiest part. Not that the mountains weren’t impressive, but I associated mountains with family drives to see my granddad in Telluride, when I battled car sickness as we wound through the mountain switchbacks and suffered from my eardrum that had once burst from an infection. As we emerged from the car and our feet struck prairie dirt, I glanced over at Mom, expecting her to comment on the clarity of Long’s Peak in the distance like she often did with Daddy. It towered above the other peaks along the remote but imposing lineup that was cardboard-like the way the entire range jutted up suddenly. It was as if nature unexpectedly ran out of prairie and so the only remaining choices were mountains or ocean; but California already had dibs on the ocean because of the surfers.
The small group of us hiked from the parking lot (really we walked, but because we were on dirt and there was scenery Mom called it hiking) and the grownups set up the plastic table on the flattest spot of weed-free dirt they could find on an expanse where there were only those options: weeds and dirt. The location was a quarter football field away from where we parked our car. (Football fields were the default unit of measure in our house). The vrooming and zooming pitches from the highway easily reached us, but we were far enough away that Mom said the privacy was adequate. Besides, she added, her new shoes were getting dusty with the reddish, dry Colorado soil.
Mom—though, at the time, she was still Mommy—brought a box, THE box, inside a plastic grocery bag that was inside a fancier bag with two handles. Mom carried it without excess pomp and circumstance, though she clutched the wrapped box like a bride holding a heavy bouquet, her inner wrists pressed tight against her belly button for added support. Her palms were pushed into the sides hard enough to rustle the plastic layers with each step and they formed L shapes with her straight fingers that supported the bottom. When she stopped the flowers aunt helped her remove the outer layer and then the inner plastic bag. I witnessed this accidentally ceremonious unveiling, holding my breath as if it might send loose ashes prematurely to unintended places like piled on my mom’s shoes or clogged up in a prairie dog hole or delicately draped like fine snow on a tumbleweed.
My exhalation expressed relief for the visual reminder that there was indeed a box keeping the ash under wraps. I was glad it didn’t look like a shoe-box-slash-dead-rodent-casket. Although it was rectangular—like a box for baby shoes—it was plain gray and had a folded top instead of a regular shoe box lid. It was a bit larger than the box containing the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang die-cast collector’s car Granddad gave me the Christmas before he died, but I imagined it was heavier. And although I was curious about the weight, I felt most comfortable with the few feet of space between myself and the box.
Mom and my aunt were detaching the last bit of plastic—one of those loop handles of a disposable grocery bag—that hung from one of the corners. It was as if their fingers were in an argument over this residual task. Then the unimaginable happened, like it often does when the very thing you really don’t want to happen actually happens. There comes a point where four hands trying so hard to be very careful become more clumsy than just two hands. The box became airborne, tumbling beneath the fumbling of twenty fingers. It deflected off the edge of the table in slow motion, then in fast motion approached the ground like a sandbag.
My aunt and my second aunt—the one who was so cool because she lived far away in a big city—had expressions that read “unfathomable horror.” My cousin Bella’s eyes were open as big as Oreos and her eyebrows lifted almost to her hairline as if she expected this could be the coolest thing ever (yet her instincts seemed quick enough not to dare to accompany the enthusiasm of her upper face with a real smile on her lips). My oldest cousin Jessie’s entire body was locked in a dive launching position as if he could save the box, just like he did when we watched him tend goal for his soccer team. Twins half a year older than me—cousins Jeremy and Jacob… Well, they were the most annoyingly compliant kids ever, even as toddlers (quite a broad shadow for me to follow), and they stood stone-faced and exceptionally twin-like. My uncle had his mouth wide open like he had swallowed the four-and-twenty blackbirds and knew it was going to take a big hole and a while for all of them to fly out.
Mom’s eyes were squinted and seemed fixated on the ground, not just at the inevitable landing spot, but its entire vicinity as well. She appeared to be doubly processing the gravity of what just happened and formulating a Plan B (Mom always had a Plan B). That is, she could have been open-mindedly assessing the suitability of that very spot for the dumping if it should occur spontaneously and beyond her control, from where—eventually at some point in the future—a warm autumn wind would do the scattering.
The moment was truncated by a scream.
“TOOOOYYYY!” emerged from my baby sister, Breck. She had yet to be able to pronounce a buh- for the bee-sounding part of Toby. She would have no more of this adult discomfort. She pushed away from my city aunt’s tight arm-hold around her hips until her elbows were straight and her torso angled as far away from my aunt’s chest as it could without being fully horizontal.
All eyes darted to Breck who was gladly and clumsily released to the ground. She ran to me in the way babies run with an exaggerated side-to-side bobble and arms straight and rubberish out front, probably because she wasn’t quite yet out of the frequent falling stage. She stopped at my feet with her hands at her sides and bent her neck way back, looking up at me in the way she did when she was making sure I was giving her my full attention. I knew that she was being both earnest and manipulative; her trust shrined in innocent, strawberry blond ringlets made her irresistible. I hugged her and her face disappeared into my jacket so that my focus could return to the spectacle.
“Oh! Thank God!” my mom said at the same time that I realized the box was still intact. Mostly.
Mom bent to pick up the box, and a tiny trickle of gray sand poured from a miniscule gap in one corner onto the ground during the first few inches of lift and was lost in an insignificantly altered red-gray dirt. I expected Mom to scream, but the leak was on the side of the box away from her. Then I expected someone else to scream or gasp or yell something. Incredulously, no one else seemed to notice.
I fixated on the blended dust and all I could do was wonder which part of my daddy was in that dust, deciding finally that it must be a random mix of parts. Later, when the numbness of the entire situation wore off, the shame of that thought haunted me: how terrible it was that I was more wrapped up in how a person could fit in a box, and which parts of that new version could fit into a spill the size of a wheel on a Matchbox car than my father’s tragic death, parts that were now being stepped on by a lady shoe.
My second aunt had approached my mom, who then switched places and joined the semicircle of “loved ones,” as my aunt called us. She stood next to the little table as if she were on a pulpit giving a eulogy in a jam-packed, grand cathedral. Straight backed and black suited. Comfortably scanning the crowd as she spoke, as if the crowd were hundreds and not just my mom, my first aunt, her husband, their four children, my baby sister and me. She used words like “peregrinations,” which I am quite sure no one understood. The front part of her shoe stayed planted on the escaped remains of the person who suddenly everyone—even the twins—was crying about.
Everyone except me.
I overheard my first aunt whisper to my uncle as they both glared sideways at me.
“What’s wrong with that boy? He’s not even crying.”
My uncle was crying, all right, and later I learned that meant that he was an evolved male, and much later still I learned what evolved meant, and the memory of what my aunt said took on its full connotation.